Entertainment

'Dreamgirls' never really die

And the music goes round and round - and round. More than 30 years ago, two guys inspired by the R&B of their youth wrote "Dreamgirls," a musical about a female singing group that jettisons the fattest and most assertive of the trio en route to stardom.

The 1981 Broadway show led to a U.S. tour two years later, an international tour two years after that, a Broadway revival in 1987, another U.S. tour in 1997 and a Broadway concert in 2001. That led to the Oscar-winning movie version of 2006, allegedly the most expensive film in history to feature an all-black cast.

The movie begat yet another U.S. tour last year, and that company swings into Belk Theater Tuesday for six days.

The new version boasts large LED screens and other state-of-the-art technology, masterminded by original "Dreamgirls" scenic designer Robin Wagner. It also offers Syesha Mercado, an "American Idol" runner-up, as Deena Jones, the Diana Ross-style diva played by Beyoncé Knowles in the film. The song "Listen," a duet of reconciliation for Deena and the wounded Effie that was written for the movie, has been added to soften the stage production.

So you know the "Dreamgirls" you're seeing will look different from the one your parents saw when Ronald Reagan was president. But how much else do you know about one of the oddities of American musical theater?

The Caucasians

Though every significant member of the cast is black, the show was created entirely by white people: composer Henry Krieger, writer Tom Eyen, director Michael Bennett, choreographer Michael Peters (who assisted Bennett), producer Bob Avian and financier David Geffen. (The orchestrator and designers of the set, costumes and lighting were also white.)

That wasn't uncommon then: "Ain't Misbehavin," the Fats Waller revue, opened three years earlier with a white writer and director. But the Duke Ellington musical "Sophisticated Ladies" premiered before "Dreamgirls" with a black director, so the concept wasn't unknown.

The 'Curse'

The 1981 "Dreamgirls" was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won six: actress (Jennifer Holliday), actor (Ben Harney), featured actor (Cleavant Derricks), book, choreography and lighting.

But neither Krieger, Eyen nor Bennett - the fabled director of "A Chorus Line" and "Follies" - ever had a hit again. Nor did a single member of the principal cast go on to a distinguished career on stage or screen or in the recording studio. Holliday had short stints in revivals of "Grease" and "Chicago," but even she fell short of the stardom predicted for her after belting "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." (That was a hot audition piece for belting sopranos years ago.)

On the other hand, an ensemble player named Phylicia Ayers-Allen went on to a huge career on "The Cosby Show" and in plays ranging from "A Raisin in the Sun" to "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" - after taking the name Phylicia Rashad.

The Changes

As originally conceived, Effie was supposed to die at the end of the first act of "Big Dreams," as the musical was known in its workshop phase.

That role was also supposed to go to Nell Carter, who had just come off a Tony-winning role in "Ain't Misbehavin'." But Carter dropped out of the show twice in its long production, first to take a role on the soap opera "Ryan's Hope" and then to leap into an Emmy-nominated part in "Gimme a Break!"

The show was often talked about as being loosely based on the Supremes. Motown's Berry Gordy demurred, and the creators backed away from such comparisons. Yet Mary Wilson, an original member of the Supremes who resented Diana Ross' prominence in the trio, called her autobiography "Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme."

The Connections (Local)

Rock Hill native William Ivey Long has five Tonys for costume design, including a 1982 prize for "Nine" - when he beat "Dreamgirls" costumer Theoni V. Aldredge. Long designed a staggering 580 pieces for the current tour.

The show has been good to York County: Another native, Charles Randolph-Wright, appeared in ensemble numbers in the 1981 cast. He went on to a busy career as a writer - Actor's Theatre of Charlotte has done his loosely autobiographical "Blue" - and director, most recently of the U.S. tour of "Porgy and Bess" that came to Charlotte last spring.

And Robert Clater, who runs Clater Kaye Theatreworks in Hickory with wife Lesia Kaye, took turns in various male roles in the 1987 Broadway revival and directed an acclaimed version in Los Angeles 10 years ago.

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